The CNE holds on — barely — to its nostalgic appeal. But where are tomorrow’s memories going to come from?

If there’s an alarm that signals the last of the laughing, lazy days of summer, it’s the screaming siren of the Polar Express sounding against the pounding beat of that song that has been filling every dancefloor and thumping out of trunks all season. When the slick top-40 voice of the DJ-cum-ride-operator cuts the popcorn-and-cinnamon scented air, asking, “Tell me, do you want to go faster? Then let me hear you scream real loud!” and you are propelled backwards and around and outwards, maybe into the lap of that someone whose lap you’ve been waiting for an excuse to get into, while the tiny flashing blue and red and white light bulbs dance against the pale, worn blue and white siding of the ride, and you throw your hands in the air and — what the hell — scream real loud, you can almost see the sunny, sandy days and flirty warm nights receding into your past. They might as well hand out three-ring binders and geometry sets at the exit.

It’s one of those annual signposts, like New Year’s at the beginning of January and taxes at the end of April and Christmas mall decorations in the middle of October: the Canadian National Exhibition, going on now until Labour Day, still going after 127 years with its farm animals and unwinnable games and its not-always-death-defying air show and, of course, its rickety, pleasantly crappy rides, including the iconic Polar Express.

As Toronto traditions go, the Ex is a doozy. Taking place on 78 hectares of waterfront land that are all but reserved for the fair, the CNE is the largest annual fair in Canada and the fifth largest in North America. Moreover, it occupies a very particular, personal place in the hearts of nearly any Torontonian you talk to. Generations of Canadians saw their first television or automatic washing machine at the CNE, or witnessed farm animals for the first time, experienced a roller coaster or saw their favourite band play after a stop at the candy floss booth and before a night on the midway. The upper floor of the Horse Palace has, if you talk to people who’ve worked there, seen more romance than a Harlequin proofreader, and the details are likely similarly fictional. You never see it in the big tourism campaigns (perhaps it is not “unlimited” enough), but the CNE is a defining element of Toronto life for a great many of its residents.

Here’s an observation: The best ages to experience the Ex are eight and 16.

If there’s one thing nearly everyone agrees on, it’s that the CNE ain’t what it used to be. But to be fair, it never was.

The first official Exhibition, the “Toronto Industrial Exhibition” in 1879, was a break with the agricultural roots of the fair’s prehistory. The post-war construction of the modernist Exhibition Stadium and Food Building broke with the beaux arts design that had always marked the grounds. By the time I started attending in the late 1970s, the much-talked about free food in the Food Building was gone and the futuristic household-appliance revelations of the Better Living Centre were a thing of the past and by the time I worked there as a barker at various games — working, for a few years, every single hour that the fair was open — the Bulova Watch Tower (which had formerly been the Shell Oil Tower) had been torn down.

Today, the old grey lady is certainly showing her age — architecture aside, the Polar Express may be one of the few iconic Exhibition traditions still going. The cable cars that ferried people from the Princes’ Gates to the other side of the Food Building, gone. Exhibition Stadium, home to the top concerts in the city that drove attendance and excitement, gone. The Flyer, Canada’s most famous wooden roller coaster, gone. The gorgeous Ontario Government Building is now the Liberty Grand, the Arts, Crafts and Hobbies Building is now Medieval Times, the Horticulture Building is home to a nightclub or something, the Music Building is home to a private business and closed to the public and the futuristic displays at the Better Living Centre have given way to cheap sunglasses, extreme sports and a depressingly bare-bones casino. The Zipper, The Wildcat, The Beer Tent — gone, gone, gone. Even Conklin Entertainment, with its glassy-eyed ex-con carnies and its creepy clown-with-Xed-out-eyes logo is gone, bought in receivership by the suspiciously less tattooed and more toothsome North American Midway Entertainment. The question: what’s coming in to replace these icons so that the children of today will have something to get all Wonder Years about?

Another observation: the Guess Your Age and Weight guys are the midway equivalent of a major-label band.

Here’s one fundamental riddle at the heart of the CNE problem: the Ex is essentially crappy — in a good way — but every time they remove a crappy element, the fair seems more crappy — in a bad way — than it was before.

Today, it seems like every second street you walk down in the grounds and every first building you walk into is just an opportunity to shop, and not for futuristic cars or whatever, either. There are Persian rugs and brooms and bad faux-impressionist oil paintings and furniture and whole warehouse-sized spaces of clothes. And if you find yourself in the mood to buy a hot tub after catching the Human Cannonball show, the CNE offers about a dozen places where you can do just that. Here’s some advice to those in a position to do something: replacing those little trains that ferried old people around with yet another opportunity to buy bras for $7 or sunglasses for $2.99 doesn’t make it more current. It just makes it more like a discount mall. And we’ve already got plenty of those.

Yet another observation: those scandalously short skirts that are popular right now make enjoying a good number of the rides a little awkward.

What if the CNE got back into the Exhibition business? I know — there are still a dozen exhibits listed in the program, but they’re mostly hidden away and they look like some janitor was asked to throw them together in his spare time. Besides which, a couple of butter sculptures and a roomful of Barbies in designer outfits don’t exactly sear themselves indelibly into the memories of those who’ll later be reminiscing about the glory days. I’ve yet to meet the child who will be writing his What I Did On My Summer Vacation paper about the living-room-sized “Circa 1995/2005” design exhibit that was in the middle of the Direct Energy Centre flea market hall.

What if the CNE returned to its roots of showing us the future by giving us real, razzle-dazzle displays of tomorrow’s technology? They could get together with the Science Centre and videogame and computer manufacturers and robotics companies and — here’s a thought — environmental organizations to build exhibits worth travelling to. They need to make the CNE the kind of place where the woman who invents teleportation or the man who comes up with the car that runs on water will show them.

And when the soccer stadium currently under construction is finished, it should be priority No. 1 on someone’s BlackBerry to book a superstar musician to perform there every night of the fair.

Or here’s another thought. How about we replace the overpriced food-court crap in the Food Building with a display of the best in organic farming? Or high-end cuisine? Or something, anything, that you can’t get somewhere else?

A tip: money games on the midway aren’t fixed in the sense that the wheel is rigged to never stop on your bet. They’re rigged in the sense that your odds of winning are one in six and the best payout is three to one. Which means you still can’t win.

But, of course, there’s magic on the midway. When the sun goes down and you’re on the Ferris wheel and the clack-clack-clack of the Crown and Anchor wheel and the hiss of hydraulics from the roller coaster compete with the muffled hum of the barkers and the alarm bells for the attention of your ears, you can forget the hit-and-miss trips through the buildings and the uninspired exhibits and all that should be here that is gone. Because with a bite of ice cream waffle in your mouth and the view of the thousands of blinking lights rising up to the Toronto skyline in the distance before you, you can still get the giddy feeling in your stomach like you’re 15 years old and you’re about to kiss your secret crush for the first time. And you know that the same remains true for 15-year-olds today, because there are a bunch of them around doing just that. And that feeling alone is worth the $12 admission price, and maybe always will be.

Originally published in Eye Weekly August 24, 2006.